Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Academia in the Philadelphia Region
Higher education is a source of pride, progress, and aggravation.

Sorting Out Future Winners Some Suggestions

{top quote}
It's getting to be time for the country to tell the education industry what is expected of it. {bottom quote}
Dr. Fisher

Secondary schools strive to be known for their well-rounded excellence. That's pretty hard to measure, so the prevailing in-a-nutshell scoring system is the placement of graduates into highly selective colleges. Secondary school reputation is thus a creature of college admission officers, who mostly rely upon aptitude test scores. To cut all this down to size, what's measured is inborn aptitude of the students more than the quality of teaching. Maybe it's time we acknowledged that, and acted upon it more openly.

One approach would be to give each one of a very large group of college admission officers sole authority to admit a small number of students and then to make the careers of the admission officers depend on the longitudinal outcome. If the students flunk out of college, you better get a new college admission officer. If a majority are admitted to high prestige graduate schools, however, consider a promotion for the admission officer. If a graduate wins a Nobel prize, the immediate question should be, "Whose admission was this?" Ultimately, there would be another question, "Who's picking these admission officers?"

A second approach would be to devise more dynamic relationships between the SAT testing system, and its long-term results. Good scores on multiple-choice questions may closely predict later success -- as a computer designer or dermatologist. But important leadership professions like politics, business, and the military are skeptical that "braininess" is the most important asset for their careers. People in those walks of life regard the aptitude tests as a nuisance, designed mostly to simplify the task of overburdened admission officers. College admission officers, in short, are under suspicion of promoting themselves into a new elite. After fifty years of experience with their tools, it is time their outcomes were evaluated by the public they serve.

Still a third approach, arises out of growing discomfort with recent advances in molecular genetics. After all, if Darwin's theory of evolution is essentially accepted, it brings us close to the old positions of Calvinism. God must surely hate poor people, or he wouldn't have made them poor; or, He must surely love rich people if he made them rich. If Chinese people have 10% higher IQ than Caucasian Americans, you can safely predict what will happen in fifty years if we encourage immigration, or in a hundred years if we don't. But this is too general; let's look at more specific aptitudes.

When remarkable musical talent makes its appearance at the age of three and follows a noticeable family clustering, there can be little doubt of its genetic source. The Curtis School of Music has long attracted a student body of child prodigies, and the long term results seem to demonstrate lifelong musical excellence is what emerges. A fair amount of artistic temperament also emerges, but its genetic origin is less clear. It's hard to escape the conclusion that inheritance of a small number of genes is responsible for unusual musical ability, and that a blood test for this condition will probably soon be offered us. Whether intermarriage is a good thing or not, throwing these children together in a special school is practically certain to result in intermarriage, with consequent inbreeding of the Arabian racehorse variety. If we decide we want this to happen, we can establish more schools for the musically gifted. But if what else the system produces turns out to resemble side-show freaks, then the matter is less tolerable.

And likewise for the athletes, perhaps subdivided by sport. Football tackles and eighty-pound gymnasts may well be different genetic groups. Speed reading and speed talking seem to run in families. And then, there's an interesting observation about artists and literary figures.

In the past, it has been observed that fine art tends to be produced by the children of the artisan class, while literary celebs are more often the product of professional families. Professionals do tend to live in certain suburbs, artisans in different suburbs; selective intermarriage seems inevitable. Special schools for the artistically talented might be selectively placed in artisan neighborhoods, literary schools in professional districts, mathematics in areas with many engineers. The virtuous circle would soon emerge, as talented people sought these school districts out. It's rather probable that most of the prodigies selected by such eugenic scheming would fail to meet the standard of being well-rounded. Surely there are ways to test this sociology and determine whether we want more Arabian racehorses or whether we don't. Rich men marry beautiful women, and their children, therefore, tend to be handsome. Few people would challenge the accuracy of the observation. Nobody knows whether it is a good thing. Political correctness is a hindrance to finding out some things of immediate importance.

Originally published: Thursday, June 22, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019